REFLECTION: “History will judge us” – Torture, truth, justice and accountability

Scott WrightBy Scott Wright, Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore, & past member of the PCUSA National Council

“We must never forget, history will judge us. . . .  If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others we would not be willing to have invoked against us. . . . The record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well.”  ~Chief Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Tribunals, 1946

“The Eucharist makes a Christian lifestyle mature. The charity of Christ, when embraced with an open heart changes us. It allows us to love beyond our human limitations, opening us to the depths of God’s love. . . . Torturing people is a mortal sin. It’s a very serious sin. I repeat the firm condemnation of every form of torture and invite all Christians to engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and to support victims and their families.” ~Pope Francis, Angelus, June 23, 2014

On December 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its 500 page report, documenting a decade of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret detention and interrogation program. Between 2001 and 2009, 119 detainees – including 26 who by the CIA’s own admission should never have been detained, were beaten and shackled, held in stress positions, deprived of sleep – some up to seven days, subject to frigid temperatures – one detainee froze to death, water-boarded – one detainee up to 187 times, and threatened with harm to their families.

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According to the U.N. Convention against Torture, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information” constitutes torture. Rendition to other countries, where the likelihood is that a detainee will be tortured, is also a crime.

Torture is a crime against humanity. It degrades the perpetrator and the society that condones, tolerates, or is silent in the face of evil. But most of all, torture is a violation of human dignity, and a mortal sin. In the words of Jean Amery, a victim of the Gestapo, “Once tortured, a man remains tortured.” Fortunately, throughout the world, there are human rights organizations which defend the victims, and torture treatment centers that help survivors heal.

It is important to remember, too, that of the nearly 800 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2002, including the 119 who were later transferred there from CIA secret detention centers, fewer than 50 of the 800 were ever deemed liable for prosecution – by the U.S. government’s own admission.

The Senate report documents a chronicle of shame: crimes were committed, laws were broken, and lies were told. The report concluded that torture occurred, that torture did not provide actionable intelligence, and that the CIA lied to government officials and to the American people. Lawyers prepared briefs justifying torture, and psychologists and medical doctors participated in the torture sessions. Administration officials at the highest level ordered the torture, and members of Congress who were briefed remained silent.

We remember, too, the real fear and desperation that reigned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the more than 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. That fear contributed to an environment that gave a green light to the war on terror and torture. But we would do well to remember, as well, the words of Rev. Nathan Baxter, the African American dean of Washington National Cathedral, who spoke at a memorial service for the victims just five days after 9/11:

“We must understand that justice is never ‘just about us,’ no matter what the tragedy of our experience. When it is just about us it becomes vengeance and blind retribution, and more innocents suffer. . . . True justice is never about revenge, pure retribution, or acting without the light of our spiritual values and accountability to the larger community. We must not become the evil we deplore in the search for justice.”

Whether torture is one day abolished in the world will depend on the courage of governments, including our own, to hold people accountable for crimes against humanity. As it stands, reaction to the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report by those responsible for ordering, justifying, or practicing torture does not lend much confidence to that hope. But the verdict is not out yet. Hopefully there will be other voices – and religious leaders – calling for truth, justice, and accountability. Only then is true reconciliation and reparation – especially moral reparation – possible.

Religious Leaders and Human Rights Defenders Call for Accountability

There have been strong condemnations of the CIA torture documented in the Senate report by religious leaders, human rights defenders, newspaper editorials, and survivors themselves, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, a survivor of torture from the Dirty War in Argentina.

Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said acts of torture “violated God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong.” The U.S. bishops condemned torture as an instrument of national security and added: “The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance,” including for reasons of national security and in response to “ticking time bomb” scenarios. “Congress and the President should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticized President Obama for failing to prosecute the torturers, and urged him to do so. “President Obama has been firm in stopping torture . . . but he has utterly failed and flatly refused to investigate torture, let alone prosecute those responsible,” as required by U.S. and international law. The U.S. is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture, and required to investigate, prosecute, punish, and offer compensation to the victims. “Torture tarnished the United States’ reputation,” Roth continued, “endangered U.S. troops overseas, undermined the rule of law, and became a rallying cry for terrorist recruiters. Prosecuting the torturers is in America’s interest.”

Survivors of torture have also been in the forefront of calling on the President Obama to hold those who ordered, justified, or practiced torture to account. One of those survivors, Juan Mendez, is now the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who describes the 1984 adoption of the Convention against Torture by the United Nations General Assembly a landmark moment: “The Convention against Torture was a very significant milestone in the fight against torture because it incorporates very specific obligations on states to investigate, prosecute and punish every incident of torture.”

In fact, many of the methods of torture used by the CIA in secret detention centers were the same as those used by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, which merited the denunciation of the world at the Nuremberg Trials. The practice of enforced disappearances still used by governments to torture people and evade accountability dates back to Hitler’s infamous “Night and Fog” decree. Many of the CIA methods of torture were taught for decades to Latin American military officers and soldiers by the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC), as outlined in their infamous “Torture Manual,” with the same shameful results.

History Will Judge Us – Never Again!

“History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again,’” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democratic official on the Senate committee, told the press upon release of the report.

“Never again!” was the cry that emerged from survivors of the Holocaust. It was echoed by people in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the aftermath of military dictatorships, and by bishops’ conferences which published reports entitled “Never Again” in Brazil and Chile, by public trials of the military responsible for torture and disappearance of 30,000 citizens in Argentina, and by United Nations’ Truth Commissions that documented the torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial assassinations of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens in El Salvador and Guatemala.

For thirty years, the United States supported cruel military regimes in Latin America, and failed to stop the systematic torture, disappearance and assassination they committed against hundreds of thousands of their own citizens: In Brazil, from 1964 – 1985, more than 17,000 people were victims of torture; in Chile, from 1973 – 1989, there were 3,428 documented cases of disappearance, killing, torture and kidnapping; in Argentina, between 1976 – 1983, torture was practiced in secret detention centers, bodies were dumped into the sea from airplanes, and 30,000 people were disappeared; in El Salvador, between 1977 – 1992, 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 disappeared; in Guatemala, between 1964 – 1994, 200,000 people, mostly indigenous, were killed in what the United Nations described as “genocide.” In more recent years, the United States has supported repressive governments in Colombia and Honduras.

The Catholic bishops in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala (Argentina was the regrettable exception) played a key role in defending the victims and denouncing the repression. The Chilean bishops even went as far as to deny communion to those who refused to repent for their actions of torture. On December 15, 1983, the National Bishops’ Conference of Chile published the following declaration: “Those who in any form realize, promote or collaborate with torture offend gravely against God and human dignity. Therefore, while they do not repent sincerely, torturers, their accomplices, and those who, having the opportunity to stop torture, do not do it, cannot receive Holy Communion.”

Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, denounced the torture, disappearance and assassination of his people in his Sunday homilies, and he gave shelter to the mothers and families of the disappeared. He said: “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. . . . There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”

Remembering a Special Mass 35 Years Ago

When the Senate Intelligence report came out, I remembered a very special mass that took place 35 years ago in Washington D.C. On that day, May 25, 1979, a young Capuchin priest delivered a powerful condemnation of torture in St. Matthew’s cathedral to three hundred Argentine military who had gathered there to commemorate the Day of the Armed Forces. As the mass began, six of us walked up to the altar and turned around to face the military, holding pictures of the disappeared. Almost immediately, we were escorted out of the church onto the street by local police officers. The mass continued, and the priest began the homily:

“It pains us to see how this Catholic continent continues to be a valley of tears, a river of blood. How many bishops in Puebla spoke to us of the persecution of the church! How many catechists, priests and religious, kidnapped, tortured and dead! How many peasants, indigenous and workers, trampled in this great struggle between opposing ideologies!”

He then quoted from the conclusions of the 1979 Latin American Bishops’ Conference at Puebla, which took place only three months before. How many families are “anguished by the disappearance of their loved ones, about whom they have no news.” How many feel “total insecurity on account of their detentions without any judicial order.” When national security becomes “a doctrine,” it develops into “a repressive system, in accordance with its concept of ‘permanent war’” and is opposed to “a Christian vision of man” and a vision of “the State as responsible for administering the common good.”

In the middle of the homily, all but one of the military officers stood up and exited the cathedral.

One of those present at the mass that day was Fr. Patrick Rice, a young Irish missionary priest and dear friend (now deceased) and superior general of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, who had been kidnapped and tortured by the Argentine military. He survived, though much of his community did not, as his disappearance was witnessed by people in the shantytown where he worked, and later denounced by the Irish Embassy. He went on to become the General Secretary for the Families of the Disappeared in Latin America (FEDEFAM), and to become a life-long advocate for the abolition of torture and the abolition of the practice of enforced disappearances.

Whether the United States will pursue the path of truth, justice and accountability depends in part on the courage of religious leaders, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens to call on President Obama and Congress to do just that. There has been much talk about “moving forward,” but we cannot move forward with integrity if we do no remember the past. There must be an accounting of crimes committed, or we are surely condemned to repeat them. Many have said, “this is not who we are.” If so, then we would do well to heed and act on the words of Chief Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946:

“We must never forget, history will judge us. . . .  If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others we would not be willing to have invoked against us. . . . The record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well.”

My hope is that there will be a general outcry by all of us, and religious leaders will have the courage to do what one young Capuchin priest – who would later become Cardinal Archbishop of Boston – did 35 years ago, in St. Matthews cathedral in Washington D.C., when he called the Argentine military to account for persecuting the church, and torturing and disappearing its citizens.

Perhaps, without knowing, he was also giving solace to thousands of victims undergoing torture at that moment, and to a young Jesuit priest in Argentina – who would later become Pope and give hope to many by denouncing torture as “a mortal sin,” and urging all of us “to love beyond our human limitations” by treating even our enemies with justice, not degrading them and ourselves by torturing them.

One response to “REFLECTION: “History will judge us” – Torture, truth, justice and accountability

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    REFLECTION: “History will judge us” – Torture, truth, justice and accountability